The Gypsy Sisters
Everytime 20-something Sahira – en engineer by qualification and a belly dancer by profession – takes the stage, she puts her hands together in a “namaskar”, a movement that has been incorporated in belly dancing by Reetu Jain, an auditor by profession and a belly dancer by choice. Belly dancing, one of the oldest forms of dance, having its roots in the Middle-East, is now being revived by women in the West.
On a hot summer evening in Texas, professionally qualified women get together to pick up the finer aspects of this dance form. Some do it for a career, others for lucidity and poise, while most are there for fun. Urban Gypsy, Houston’s only professional American Tribal Style dance troupe, caters to 14-year olds as well those who’ve crossed half a century. It is composed of five incredibly talented and dedicated teachers (known as the Gypsy Sisters), passionate about bringing the beauty and grace of belly dance to the USA. Sahira born to a Mexican family in America, began her career as a Middle-Eastern dancer in Houston under the direction of Shakira Masood-Ali. Her travels as a performer have allowed her to study several styles of dancing with many talented instructors including Hadia (Gypsy Rom and Flamenco), Leila Gamal (Egyptian), Amel Tafsout (North African), Helena Vlahos (Raqs Sharqi), Laurel Victoria Gray (Persian), Aida Nour (Ghawazee), and Artemis (Turkish).
“A multicultural influence in western society has enabled the growth of this dance form. Along with the diversity of food, language, and customs, different forms of dance are catching up across the world,” says Reetu Jain, one of the talented Gypsy Sisters. Jain was born and brought up in Houston with a passion for dance. She has been dancing since the age of three and had her first stage performance when she was a four-year-old. Trained in classical Indian dance for over 11 years, Reetu has introduced Indian mudras and contemporary Bollywood steps in this dance form. “It is the hottest fusion to hit the belly dance streets. A special workshop was in demand for learning Indian Bollywood styles with tribal belly dance to create a rich and exotic look,” says Jain.
Tribal dance, in Sahira’s class, is not the glamorised Hollywood version of belly dancing. “That is one of the reasons why we incorporate a lot of traditional Indian dance movements and rituals in our dance style. We start with a prayer to Mother Earth before we perform,” says Sahira.
This passionate dancer cherishes contemporary Hindi cinema and admires Bollywood diva Madhuri Dixit. Although they have not yet received any offers from Mumbai, they will certainly not hesitate if good offers come their way.
Belly dancing is created specifically for the female body and is natural to a woman’s bone and muscle structure, with movements emanating from the torso rather than in the legs and feet. Urban Gypsy Dance classes are more like creating a synergy of movement, and so many women who have wanted to learn this dance form for years but could not for some reason, have found a niche for it immediately. “Its all about sister-hood, much more grounded, less flirty, less glamorous, but more earthy,” explains Sahira. In America, belly dancing was first seen when the famous dancer, Little Egypt, performed at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. Americans found themselves fascinated by the exotic body rhythms and music, eventually including it in their adventurous lifestyle. “Since the turn of the century, when everyone is so figure cautious, belly dancing is an art form that reverses to the curvy female contour,” says a physical instructor of a local gymnasium.
A belly dancer isolates upper body movements with vibrating moves. Combined with a series of hand gestures, belly dancing engages all parts of the body that includes an internal massage of the reproductive and digestive organs. This dance form is a low-impact exercise that also strengthens back muscles. “A healthy physical workout that has not only brought out the curves in my body but emancipated the woman in me,” says a student.
Most of the Urban Gypsy group are in different professions, except Sahira and Jackie, who are full-time belly dancers. Just eight months back Jackie worked as an accountant and soon realised her call and switched from accounting to the exotic profession of belly dancing. Sahira received a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering and chemistry from Rice University, Houston. She also worked as an air quality consultant for the oil and gas industry. While Julie is a full-time architect and Katherine owns her own landscape architectural firm, belly dancing continues to be an important part of their schedule. Contrary to popular belief that belly dancing is intended to entertain men, Sahira says the movements are liked to the increased independence of women. She says, “it is like any other form of art, where women, dancing together, create an atmosphere of empowerment and trust.”